Skip to main content


Volume 558: debated on Wednesday 6 February 2013

This morning I had meetings with ministerial colleagues and others, and in addition to my duties in this House, I shall have further such meetings later today.

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. I have given him notice of my question, which he may find particularly useful in the sense that it is fair and transparent and also very modern. In response to the many concerns expressed in yesterday’s debate, will he ensure that civil partnerships are open to heterosexual couples on an equal basis with homosexual couples?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving me notice of his question. I will obviously listen carefully to what he says, but frankly I am a marriage man. I am a great supporter of marriage. I want to promote marriage, defend marriage, encourage marriage, and the great thing about last night’s vote is that two gay people who love each other will now be able to get married. That is an important advance. We should be promoting marriage, rather than looking at any other way of weakening it.

I want to ask the Prime Minister about the bedroom tax. Alison in Middlesbrough has 18-year-old twin sons who are both in the Army. The Prime Minister’s bedroom tax means that while her sons are away, she will be charged more for their bedrooms. She says:

“I resent the fact that both my sons are serving and protecting their country, and in return will not have a home to come home to when they are granted their much needed leave.”

What is the Prime Minister’s answer to Alison?

First of all, let me make it clear that this is not a tax; it is a benefit. I would make two points in respect of the specific case that the right hon. Gentleman raises. First, all the time Labour was in government, if somebody was in a private sector rented home and were in receipt of housing benefit, they did not get any benefit for empty rooms. That is important. So it is only fair that we treat people in social housing the same way. The second point is that if anyone is away from home, obviously their earnings are not counted, so the benefits of that person are likely to go up.

I look forward to the Prime Minister explaining to Alison why her paying £25 a week more from April is not a tax on her. As for his point about the private rented sector, I think he misunderstands the point of social housing. Part of its purpose is to protect the most vulnerable. According to the Government’s own figures, two thirds of the people hit are disabled. Let me tell the Prime Minister about an e-mail that I received last week, which says:

“My wife is disabled, has a degenerative condition and is cared for in bed.”

The gentleman goes on:

“Due to her illness and my own medical conditions I usually sleep in the spare bedroom.”

Why is it fair for him and hundreds of thousands of other disabled people like him to be hit by the bedroom tax?

As with every hon. Member, if the right hon. Gentleman wants me or the Department for Work and Pensions to look at a specific case, of course I will, but let me again make some detailed points to him. First of all, there is a £50 million fund to deal with difficult cases. But let me also make the basic argument of fairness that he seems to miss. If someone is in private rented housing and receives no housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, and if someone is in private housing and do get housing benefit, they do not get money for an extra room, so there is a basic argument of fairness. Why should we be doing more for people in social housing on housing benefit than for people in private housing on housing benefit? There is one additional point that, frankly, he has got to engage in. The housing benefit bill is now £23 billion a year. We know that he is against capping welfare and we know that he is against restricting welfare to below the rate of increase in wages. We know all the things he is against; we are beginning to wonder what on earth he is for.

The Prime Minister is spending more than £8 billion more than he planned on housing benefit because of his economic failure during this Parliament. I say to him that the whole point of social housing is to protect families, including the disabled. It does not sound like he is going to do anything for military families or the disabled, but let us talk about a group of people he is moved by. I have here a letter sent on his behalf by the Conservative party treasurer about the so-called mansion tax. It says:

“We promise that no homes tax will be introduced during the course of this parliament”.

It goes on:

“To keep the taxman out of your home…please help by donating today and supporting the ‘No Homes Tax’ campaign.”

Can the Prime Minister explain what it is about the plight of those people that he finds so much more compelling than that of those hit by the bedroom tax?

If the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of a mansion tax, why did he not introduce one in the 13 years he was in government? If he is so passionate about social housing, why did he not build any when he was in government? If he thinks we are spending too much on housing benefit—he has just said that the bill is going up—why does he oppose each and every attempt we make to get the welfare bill under control? The fact is that the public can see that we are on the side of people who work hard and want to do the right thing; all he can ever do is spend more money.

I say to the Prime Minister that he should not get so het up. After all, he has got nearly half his parliamentary party behind him.

The policy is not just unfair; it is not going to work either. In Hull, for example, 4,700 people are going to be hit by the bedroom tax, and there are just 73 council properties for them to move to. Can the Prime Minister explain how exactly that is going to work?

What this Government are doing is building more houses and controlling welfare bills. Frankly, the question is one that the right hon. Gentleman has to answer, too. If he opposes the welfare cap, if he opposes restrictions on increased welfare, if he opposes reform of disability benefits and if he opposes each and every welfare change we make, how on earth is he going to get control of public spending?

The clue is in the title: Prime Minister’s questions. He is supposed to try to answer the question.

The Prime Minister clearly does not understand his own policy, but I thought that he might say, “Move to the private rented sector,” because there are not enough council properties for people. This is where—[Interruption.] When he gets up I would like him to say what those people should do. The policy is supposed to save money, and that is where it is not going to work out. Another woman who wrote to me, Diane, says that

“my rent for my family home”—[Interruption.]

I do not know why Government Members are groaning—thousands of their constituents are going to be hit by this policy. Diane says that

“my rent for my family home is at present £65.68, whereas a one bedroom”

in the private sector “would cost over £100.” How can it possibly make sense to force people into a situation where they cost the state more, not less, by moving into the private rented sector?

What this Government are doing is building more homes. If the right hon. Gentleman supports that, will he now support our changes to the planning system and the new homes bonus? Will he support the things that will get more homes built and more people into jobs? We have 1 million extra people working in the private sector—that is what he has to engage in. He has absolutely no suggestions for how to get on top of welfare, to get our deficit down, to get our economy moving or, frankly, to do anything else.

So today we discover that the Prime Minister has not even got a clue about his own policy, which he is introducing in April. His answers today remind us of what his party and the country are saying about him. The only people he listens to are a small group of rich and powerful people at the top. That is why he has come up with a policy that is unworkable and unfair. He is a Prime Minister who is weak, incompetent and totally out of touch.

That is the totally pathetic, pre-scripted rubbish that we get used to every Wednesday. On the issue of who listens to whom, I have a very clear idea of who the right hon. Gentleman listens to, because we heard it in the LSE lecture by Len McCluskey, who said of the right hon. Gentleman:

“I met him and he asked me—‘Len, if you had three wishes, three things that you’d like us to do if we got back into power, what would you like them to be’”?

Len McCluskey’s answer was

“trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms, trade union freedoms.”

That is who the right hon. Gentleman wants to be the fairy godmother to.

At the time of the strategic defence and security review two and a half years ago, my right hon. Friend said:

“My own strong view is that this structure will require year-on-year real-terms growth in the defence budget in the years beyond 2015.”—[Official Report, 19 October 2010; Vol. 516, c. 799.]

Does that remain his view and has he heard any similar view expressed by the Leader of the Opposition?

It does remain my view, but I am afraid to say that, as far as I can see, I am the only party leader who believes that, in the years beyond this Parliament, we should increase defence spending in the way described by my right hon. Friend. The good news for all those who care about this issue is that it is agreed Government policy that the defence equipment programme needs real-terms increases up to after 2015. It is very important for us to be able to plan our exceptional equipment programme, which will give us some of the best-equipped armed forces anywhere in the world.

Q2. The Office for Budget Responsibility tells us that the bankers will pay £500 million less for the bankers tax than the Prime Minister promised last year, yet in April he will inflict a £500 million cut on the poorest through the second empty bedroom tax. How can he justify taking from the poor and giving to the rich? (141635)

I say to the hon. Gentleman—this is an important point—that we have introduced the bank levy. We think that that is a better answer than a one-off bonus tax. The bank levy will, of course, be paid every year, so it will raise considerably more than a one-off bonus tax. What my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has done when the bank levy has not come up to the figures that we require is increase the bank levy to make sure that they do.

I remind the House of my declared interests.

Tomorrow the Prime Minister will go to Brussels to argue, rightly, for a substantial reduction in common agricultural policy funding. Will he ensure that any reduction applies to farmers right across Europe, not just those in the UK? Will he also make sure that he does not fall into the same trap as his predecessor did last time around in 2005? When pressing for cuts, his predecessor ended up with a cut to the one part of the CAP that everyone thinks is worth while—the rural development programme and the environment.

My right hon. Friend speaks very knowledgeably about this matter. These will be extremely difficult negotiations. Obviously, our aim is the significant cut that I have spoken about. The point that he makes about agriculture is important, particularly in respect of the flexibility that we require to ensure that things such as the rural development programme continue to succeed.

Q3. We know that the Prime Minister has met lots of millionaires, but has he ever met anyone who will lose their home because of his bedroom tax? (141636)

I hold constituency surgeries and listen to all the sorts of cases that the Leader of the Opposition has brought out today. I have RAF Brize Norton in my constituency, and many forces families live there. What they say to me is that they want a Government who are on the side of people who work hard and do the right thing. They support the fact that we are capping welfare, getting on top of immigration and clearing up the mess left by the hon. Lady’s party.

Today is the United Nations international day of zero tolerance to female genital mutilation. Does the Prime Minister agree that Britain should be doing all it can to combat this dreadful abuse of the human rights of women and girls overseas and here in the UK?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend. She is right to raise this matter. The Government have made progress by chairing a forum to look right across the piece, including at what we do overseas through our aid programme to prevent the horrific practice of female genital mutilation and at what we do here to ensure that the Crown Prosecution Service and others are aware of the law and do everything they can to ensure that it is properly prosecuted.

That is not a constituency case that has come my way. All I can say is that I hope it will engender a great historical understanding of these events among all our people and provide a great boost to the great city of Leicester.

This week’s announcement that the work of the Insolvency Service at Stockton is moving to Newcastle is the latest in a long series of similar announcements affecting the Tees valley, including the closure of Middlesbrough’s HMRC office by the previous Government. Will the Prime Minister look to bring extra work to the HMRC office in Stockton and to move another public sector agency to the Tees valley?

I will look very carefully at what my hon. Friend says. We want to ensure that public sector jobs are fairly distributed around the country, but we have to be frank and say that the real need is for a rebalancing in the economy, with growth in the private sector to make up for the decline in public sector jobs. Over the past two and a half years, the million extra private sector jobs have more than offset the decline in public sector employment. That is why unemployment is falling around the country.

Q5. The Prime Minister may not be aware of an opinion poll by the BBC in Northern Ireland showing that in all Six Counties there is now a clear majority in favour of the Union. People right across Northern Ireland recognise that when it comes to being part of this United Kingdom, we are better off together. (141638)

I sometimes try to avoid opinion polls, so I have not seen that one. It sounds as if it is one that will lift the spirits of almost everyone in this House, because we believe in a United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland being part of that United Kingdom.

Q6. Can the Prime Minister reassure this House that he still believes in increasing spending on the NHS and in ensuring that those funds go to the doctors and nurses at the front line of our service? (141639)

I can certainly give my hon. Friend that assurance. That is why we made a commitment to increase NHS spending in each year of this Parliament. We are on course to do that. Crucially, we want to ensure that the money goes to the front line. That is why the number of managers and administrators in our NHS is right down and the number of clinical staff right up.

Q7. Was it the double-dip recession, the slow-down in deficit reduction or the projected 60% increase in national debt over the next five years that led the Prime Minister to state that he had full confidence in his Chancellor? (141640)

I have confidence in the Chancellor because the deficit is down by 25%, there are a million extra private sector jobs and we are cleaning up the mess made by the Labour party.

In Dover, plans are moving forward for the building of a new hospital, after a decade in which local hospital services were decimated. May I, too, say that we need to increase investment in the NHS and focus on the front line?

This day, particularly when we are about to discuss what happened at Stafford hospital, is a day to talk about the importance of care in our health service, the importance of the front line and, above all, the importance of really looking at quality and listening to patients. Under this Government, of course resources have been constrained, for all the reasons we discuss across the Dispatch Box, week in, week out, but we made a conscious choice to put more money into the NHS and get that to the front line. That is why there are 5,900 more doctors and 19,000 fewer non-clinical staff. The money is going to the front line, but the focus needs to be on quality and the patient.

Q8. Does the Prime Minister share the concern of the Democratic Unionist party about suicide levels in our society? In the light of the debate later in this House, will he assure me and my party of the Government’s support to raise awareness of that issue and work with the devolved Administrations to tackle this scourge across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland? (141641)

First, I commend the hon. Gentleman and the Democratic Unionists for tabling this motion and bringing forward the issue. We often do not talk enough or address the whole issue of suicide in our society and country, and it is absolutely right to do so. It is a shocking statistic that in Northern Ireland almost six times the number of people killed in road traffic accidents are lost to suicide. Raising awareness of the issue and ensuring a proper cross-Government strategy to help people deal with it is vital, and the DUP is right to raise it.

Order. The House must calm down. We have a lot of questions to get through and I intend to get through them. Let us have a bit of order for Mr John Leech.

Local councils have faced as tough a budget settlement as most other Departments. Does the Prime Minister share my dismay that Manchester city council is choosing to close libraries, leisure centres and the Mersey Valley Countryside Warden Service, while at the same time it was happy to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds on an Alicia Keys concert and leave £100 million in reserves sitting in the bank?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Of course councils face difficult spending decisions, but in many cases the level of spending and grant they are still getting is equivalent to what they received under the last Government. Obviously, the economy has declined since then and we have to cut our cloth accordingly. Councils should be held accountable for the decisions that they make, and in some cases there can be little doubt that they are making high-profile cuts to try to make a point. They should not be damaging people’s livelihoods; they should be doing the best for their cities.

Will the Prime Minister confirm for the record that thanks to his cuts to the child care element of the working tax credit, families with children are losing up to £1,500 a year?

What has happened with child tax credit is that we increased it by £390 in this Government’s early Budgets. If we look at the benefits for a two parent, two child family, we see that that family will be getting more than £1,500 extra this year—that is £30 a week—compared with 2010. I am afraid the hon. Gentleman is wrong.

Q10. Will the Prime Minister pay tribute to the new President of Somalia, Hassan Sheikh Mohamud, whose Government have made remarkable progress over the past few months? Although there is still a long way to go, does the Prime Minister agree that the Somali peace process is a good example of Britain combining aid and development with energising the neighbouring states and the diplomatic community worldwide, and will he tell the House what role he envisages for the Somali diaspora here in the UK? (141644)

My hon. Friend makes a very important point, and to anyone wondering about the relevance of Somalia to us here in the UK, we must remember that that country has been the author of huge problems with terrorism, piracy and mass migration. Even to the most hardened sceptic of our aid budget I would say that Somalia is a really good case where engagement, aid and diplomacy can help that country to mend itself for the future. I hope that the diaspora will give full support to the new President, who is demonstrating a huge grip in his country on mending the problems that have bedevilled it for so long.

The Prime Minister’s career probably peaked when he was a Back-Bench member of the Home Affairs Committee in 2005. Will he revive his progressive courage of that time when he looks at the report from the all-party parliamentary group on drug misuse on the awful problems of new drugs that are on the market but not controlled in any way?

I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s view of my career trajectory. I will not ask him about his—perhaps we can agree about it afterwards. I learned some important lessons from the Home Affairs Committee report I worked on, including on the priority we give in tackling drugs to education and treatment. Those are the two key arms of what needs to be done. However, I do not believe we should be legalising drugs that are currently illegal. On current legal highs and problems relating to substances such as khat, which was mentioned in a previous question, we need to look carefully at the evidence on what will work best.

Q11. In Solihull, more than 80,000 people have benefited from our policy of raising the threshold at which people start to pay tax. This morning, the Institute for Fiscal Studies confirmed that that policy is right, and that those who have the broadest shoulders are bearing the greatest burden of tax. In the light of that, will the Government commit to raising the threshold at which people pay tax to £10,000 in the Budget? (141645)

I thank the hon. Lady for her question—she is absolutely right about raising the threshold before which people start to pay tax. It means that the tax bill for someone on the minimum wage working full time has been cut by one half. That is a huge change to help people who work hard and want to do the right thing. This Government are rewarding them. She mentions the IFS green budget, which came out this morning. I have not had that much time to study it, but one thing stood out. On fairness, it states:

“The whole set of tax and benefit changes introduced between the start of 2010 and 2015–16 will hit the richest households hardest.”

This Government are fair, and we are helping the hardest working.

Q12. The Leader of the Opposition asked the Prime Minister a very simple question to which he gave no adequate reply, so I will ask it again. What is the difference between a bedroom tax on the disabled and a mansion tax on millionaires? (141646)

I do not accept that the bedroom tax is a tax—it is about benefit. The fact is that, as a country, we are spending £23 billion on housing benefit. We must have a debate in this country about getting on top of housing benefit—the previous Government said that. Indeed, it featured in the Labour manifesto on which all Labour Members were elected. Since they have moved to the Opposition Benches, they have given up all pretence of responsibility.

Can the Prime Minister reconcile his recent comments on the need to accelerate major infrastructure projects with the Government’s decision to postpone forming a policy on airports until after the next general election? Will he reconsider and bring that review forward?

I listen very carefully to my hon. Friend, but Sir Howard Davies says in his review that this is a complicated issue that merits proper examination, which will take time. We need, as a country, to make major decisions on airports and airport capacity. We should aim as far as possible to try to make those decisions on a cross-party basis. I hope the Howard Davies report helps that to happen.

Q13. Last night’s vote on same-sex marriage is widely regarded as a historic vote. Does the Prime Minister agree that the vote is a tribute to the people down the decades who have worked—in all parties and no party, behind the scenes and in public—for such equality? Does he also agree that the vote proves that the arc of history bends slowly, but bends towards justice? (141647)

I agree very much with the hon. Lady. Last night’s vote will be seen not just as one that ensured a proper element of equality, but one that helps us to build a stronger and fairer society. Many of the speeches made last night were very moving and emotional. I pay tribute to all those people who have made the case—some have made it for many years—that they want their love to count the same way as a man and woman’s love for each other counts. That is what we have opened in this country, and why I am proud this Government brought it forward.

For years, young people in Goole and Brigg have had some of the lowest per pupil school funding in the country. This is now becoming critical for counties such as the East Riding of Yorkshire. Will the Prime Minister look closely not just at the 40 authorities, but specifically at the low level of per pupil funding that the East Riding of Yorkshire receives?

I will look closely at what my hon. Friend has said, but I will make a couple of points. Within the education budget we have prioritised per pupil funding, so there has not been a reduction in per pupil funding. It is very important that schools can see forward to future years to the sorts of budgets that they will have, given the roll of children coming to their school. The second thing we have done, through the academy programme, is to encourage the devolution of more of the schools budget to schools directly, and I still think there is more we can achieve on that agenda.

Q14. The Prime Minister said that he would give the public a strong voice in the NHS, and his former Health Secretary said that he would put patients at the centre of the NHS. Why then was a motion to strengthen patient and public involvement in the new patient watchdog rejected by the Government in the other place last night? (141648)

We do want to see patients have a stronger voice in the NHS, and we are about to debate, at some length in terms of the Mid Staffordshire inquiry, how that is done. One of the most important ways of doing that will be to make sure that the NHS Commissioning Board mandate has at its heart quality nursing, quality care and the voice of patients. We also need to look at how HealthWatch will work to ensure that it is truly independent. We have to understand that some of the ways we have tried to empower patients in the past—the report we are about to discuss goes into this in some detail—and give them a better voice, always with good intentions from Governments on both sides of the House, just have not worked, and we have to listen to Francis when he says that.

With more women in work than ever before, with more men in work than ever before, and with more jobs created in the private sector, does the Prime Minister agree that not only is the Chancellor’s plan A working, but that the economy is beginning to turn the corner?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. We should listen very carefully to the Governor of the Bank of England. He has said that growth is slower than we would like, but that the economy is moving in the right direction and that rebalancing is taking place. The things that need to be fixed in our economy, in terms of bank lending and the housing supply, are being fixed, and that is what the Government are determined to do.

One of my constituents has learned that when the bedroom tax is introduced she will have £24 a week to live on. She is so anxious about how she will manage she is receiving cognitive behavioural therapy. Her anxiety is totally understandable. Does the Prime Minister agree that those who should be receiving cognitive behavioural therapy are the ones—namely his Ministers—who think that she could live on £24 a week?

The Opposition have to address the fact that for 13 years in government they were perfectly content to have a housing benefit system for people in private sector housing that had no extra benefit for empty rooms. I cannot understand why they cannot see that it is unfair to have one rule for people who have the benefit of social housing with lower rents and another rule for people in private sector accommodation. Week after week, Labour MPs and the Labour leader come here opposing this benefit change, that benefit change and everything we do to deal with the mess they left to fill in the deficit they left us. Until they learn to take some responsibility for the mess they left, no one will ever listen to them.